Milosevic indictment likely today

Court at The Hague expected to announce war crimes charges

A first for chief of state

West must reconsider talks, whether he'd carry out peace terms

May 27, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- An indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is expected to be announced today by the war crimes tribunal at The Hague, diplomats said yesterday, the first time a sitting head of state will be formally charged by an international court with committing atrocities.

The decision to bring an indictment will deepen Milosevic's isolation among world leaders and could throw the top ranks of Belgrade's government into disarray, Western officials said.

But it also will force Western leaders to reconsider whether they can negotiate peace with an accused war criminal and rely on him to carry out an agreement.

The international court's chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour, is expected to announce today an indictment of Milosevic and the issuance of a warrant for his arrest.

The indictment is expected to link Milosevic to war crimes in Kosovo, and comes as NATO is intensifying its 2-month-old air war with the goal of forcing Yugoslav forces out of the Serbian province and guaranteeing the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees.

Given the widespread reports of Serbian atrocities, the war crimes tribunal has been under growing pressure from human rights groups to indict top Yugoslav officials.

Numerous witnesses have told international investigators and journalists of a Yugoslav military campaign to terrify and drive out the province's ethnic Albanian majority through the wholesale rape and murder of civilians and the burning and looting of their homes.

Because members of the war crimes tribunal have been barred from Kosovo, they have had to rely on accounts from Kosovar refugees who have fled to Macedonia and Albania. These witness accounts have been buttressed by cooperation from Western intelligence agencies, which have given war crimes investigators some of the agencies' most sensitive information, including satellite photos and intercepts of conversations.

The indictment does not necessarily mean that Milosevic will be brought to justice. The two top leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, have escaped capture for several years, despite indictments by the war crimes tribunal for atrocities in Bosnia.

Milosevic "could live to a ripe old age in Serbia," said Michael P. Scharf, a former State Department legal adviser who aided the Bosnian war crimes trials.

Top Yugoslav officials reacted to word of the indictment by describing the international tribunal as a tool of the U.S.-led alliance.

Goran Matic, a Yugoslav government minister and spokesman, said: "It's the NATO tribunal, the NATO institution for making pressure on different countries. It's the potential way for NATO to make pressure and avoid a peaceful solution."

The Yugoslav view is that the architects of the NATO air war should face the wrath of the war crimes tribunal.

Arbour, a Canadian with a reputation for thoroughness and caution, signaled weeks ago that she intended to hold Yugoslavia's top leadership accountable for atrocities in Kosovo. She has been mentioned as a likely candidate for Canada's highest court and may want to complete the task of bringing indictments before leaving the tribunal, a Western diplomat suggested.

`Command responsibility'

The war crimes tribunal would be bringing charges against Milosevic on the basis of "command responsibility," which is the failure of a leader to prevent or punish atrocities committed by subordinates.

Milosevic, widely believed to have instigated the wars that have rocked the former Yugoslavia since the early 1990s, has managed to escape formal charges despite a long record of atrocities by Serbian forces under his authority.

One reason was his role as both "arsonist and fireman" of the Balkans, in the words of Richard C. Holbrooke, who brokered the Dayton accords in 1995 that ended the Bosnian war. Milosevic was seen as crucial to carrying out any peace deal.

Milosevic also was able to avoid direct responsibility for war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia because both were outside the sovereignty of Serbia, which he led.

In the case of Kosovo, however, Milosevic cannot avoid command responsibility for the Kosovo campaign conducted by Yugoslav forces. The campaign is propelled by Serbian determination to keep the province within Yugoslavia.

Milosevic has installed the military commanders who are conducting the Kosovo operations, according to Jon Western, a former State Department war crimes investigator now at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

In addition, prosecutors will likely be able to show a unified command structure behind a systematic campaign of destruction and a pattern of cooperation between the Yugoslav army and the military police, who are blamed for some of the most vicious crimes, Western said.

Proving Milosevic's command responsibility is "a slam dunk," said Ruth Wedgwood, an international law expert at Yale University.

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